Tom Friedman is a genius. It’s very, very difficult to write a frequent column that expresses deeply conventional wisdom in a fresh, hey-kids-I-just-thought-of-this voice. He is the id of the Washington Establishment.
His column today, titled “Syria Is Iraq,” shows Friedman at full steam. Now that Iraq is in the rear-view mirror, he allows that the “only reason Iraq has any chance for a decent outcome today is because America was on the ground with tens of thousands of troops to act as that well-armed midwife, reasonably trusted and certainly feared by all sides.” And his “gut” is pretty accurate to tell him that “Syria will require the same to have the same chance.”
But since all Leading Pundits understand that complexity and paradox is to be preferred to clarity, The Timesman goes on to reflect that what is “necessary” is “impossible.” And he justifies this retreat on the grounds that “those who have been advocating for a more activist U.S. intervention in Syria…are not being realistic about what it would take to create a decent outcome.”
That is just rubbish: There’s very little “cakewalk” talk when it comes to Syria. The military truth is that, much like Iraq in 2003, any initial U.S. military intervention – from air strikes to even a land invasion – would be a mismatch, and that, like Iraq after 2003, the post-Assad reconstruction would be long, difficult, and sporadically very violent. Syria is also like Iraq in possessing substantial stocks of weapons of mass destruction – or at least, the likelihood that Syria possesses a lot of chemical-round precursors adds a further compelling reason to have forces on the ground in a post-Assad scenario. Finally, at least in the form of the Russian naval facility at Tartus, it would involve the direct interests of an outside great power.
Not an appetizing outcome, to be sure. But neither are any of the foreseeable alternatives. It is still possible, perhaps just barely, that the Assad regime will survive; they can’t put down the insurgents but the rebels have yet to demonstrate they can hold important ground (watch what happens in Aleppo over the next week or so). And it is also possible for what Friedman terms a “Syrian Mandela” to emerge, a transformative figure who not only unites the disparate opposition but reassures the defeated – after a very brutal civil war – Alawite and Christian minorities. Alas, Syria does not seem a likely spot for a malice-toward-none leader.
As a columnist, Friedman can afford to “color me dubious.” But dubious is a stance, not a strategy. To simply observe and comment on the outcome in Syria is to leave critical American interests in the Middle East in the not-very-tender hands of others. That’s what comes from leading from behind. But, as the man says, Syria is not Libya. To confess that “Syria is Iraq” is to admit that something more is needed.